Empire State of Mind - By Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the June 12, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

The victory by WinStar Farm’s Drosselmeyer in the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) was a poignant moment for Thoroughbred racing in New York State, as many of the connections shared their love for Belmont Park. It clearly showed the importance of Belmont, not only to New Yorkers but to the Thoroughbred industry as a whole.

Winning jockey Mike Smith paid homage to Belmont as a place “that was like a dream” when he arrived in New York more than two decades ago. Trainer Bill Mott has won the biggest races on the planet while using Belmont as his main base. WinStar president Doug Cauthen recalled that he “thought I’d gone to heaven when I showed up at Belmont Park,” when he came to New York as a teenager working for trainers Laz Barerra and P.G. Johnson.

The New York Racing Association has taken plenty of shots recently, many of them well-deserved. Several people on hand at the track over the weekend actually think the beleaguered franchise may have been pummeled enough and is now ready to get back up and dust itself off.

Doesn’t the very nature of the business require us to be optimists?

On a day when 45,243 came out to the track for a non-Triple Crown classic finale, there seem to be four factors in play that indicate racing in New York has bumped along the bottom long enough and is perhaps poised for a turnaround.

First, the video lottery terminal process for Aqueduct hopefully is now being handled professionally. In mid-May it was announced that six bidders were viable candidates in the newest bidding process for the delayed casino project.

The state first approved the project in 2001, but a series of legal, financial, and political setbacks have delayed the casino for nearly a decade through three gubernatorial terms. The latest effort to award the license to the ill-fated and ill-equipped AEG group was an embarrassment even by New York political standards.

This latest—and hopefully last—round seems to be on the up-and-up, and most in the Empire State are confident the results will stick.

Secondly, on May 24, New York State lawmakers approved a $25 million loan for NYRA, keeping the organization solvent at least through the end of the year. Prior to the Belmont there was plenty of handwringing that NYRA might close after its signature race due to a lack of funds. The sentiment of those outside the industry might be turning as they are coming to realize a good portion of NYRA’s woes lies with the state-operated New York City Off-Track Betting, which owes the franchise $17 million.

Which brings us to our third point: The time is ripe for reform of NYCOTB, which is perhaps the only bookmaker in the history of the world not making money. The day prior to the Belmont Stakes, NYCOTB chairman Meyer “Sandy” Frucher resigned after failing to get any traction for his plan to finance the company’s turnaround by floating municipal bonds. It’s a golden opportunity at a time when simulcast and off-track wagering is losing market share to advance deposit wagering. NYRA’s Rewards ADW program offers a better-than-solid alternative than heading to an OTB.

Lastly, as people enjoyed themselves at Belmont on the first Saturday in June, the buzz is still about what is happening down the shore in New Jersey at Monmouth Park. So far, less is proving to be more.
NYRA vice president Hal Handel, who previously worked for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, gives New Jersey huge marks for trying something so radical.

“On first blush, the numbers look terrific,” he said in the Belmont paddock June 5. “The real litmus test for them will be when they get to counting up the money at the end of the year in October. If this helped them, then it’s a home run.”
The three-day-a-week Monmouth program is off to a fast start, but let’s remember, by law NYRA must run 250 days. Any reduction of race days will have to come through Albany.

It’s a change worth pondering. Like the change from the pre-race song of “New York, New York” to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Apparently, it didn’t play well on television, but am I the only one who liked the newer version? 

Evan I. Hammonds Executive Editor

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